BLOG: Forage & Feast: May

4 May 2020

In the second of our ‘Forage and Feast’ blogs in partnership with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild we look at three species: Common Nettle, Japanese Rose and Ground Elder.

The relatively warm and endless sunny days of Spring have brought the plants along quickly, with many species flowering earlier than you would normally expect to see.

As we progress through May there lots of plants to learn about and to forage. This month we have three species to look for in the garden, or if you can adhere to government guidelines and forage some of them on your daily exercise;

 

Common Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Perhaps one of the most recognised plant species in the UK! When you are young you often learn the hard way how to identify it - by getting stung! However, the humble nettle is one of my favourite plants for a number of reasons.

Firstly it is the food plant of many species of moth, butterfly and other insects. Secondly it is abundant, you can practically find this plant anywhere you go, from urban gardens to the rural countryside. Thirdly, it is delicious. I wont dwell to much on its identification (if you are unsure consult a good field guide), but once you find a good patch it can keep you in stock of healthy leafy greens for a long time.

Nettles are full of vitamins and minerals and can be used in much the same way that spinach is used. Whilst some people do eat them raw, I would advise against it unless you want a sore mouth, instead heat destroys the stings so when making something like Nettle soup then the heating process renders the plant stingless.

When picking the leaves wear good gloves and you only want to take the top four to six leaves, literally just plucking the tops of the plant. This way you get the most delicious leaves, the lower ones will be more bitter, but it also leaves plenty for the other wildlife to use.

The leaves before the plant flowers are best, in fact once the plant flowers the leaves become too bitter to warrant picking, so only take the fresh green leaves before it flowers.

Nettle pesto, nettle gnocchi, nettle aloo (instead of saag aloo which uses spinach) and even nettle cordial are all easy to make. You can even use the top leaves for making nettle tea, which is far superior to anything you can buy, steaming the leaves in hot water for 5-10 minutes before straining and drinking.

Nettles have been used traditionally for treating skin conditions, helping with muscle pain and arthritis as well as gout.

 

Japanese Rose (Rosa rugosa)

A common species in certain areas, especially in urban parts. There are parts of Greater Manchester and other areas in the North-west where it spreads and outcompetes some of our native species.

Whilst the flowers are not as showy as some of the more traditional garden roses, this single flowering type packs a tremendous scent, the most rose scented rose I have smelt and almost like sniffing pure Turkish delight. It is a plant that is often found in urban areas and can be planted as a hedging species in gardens, car parks and local parks, so it is not a plant that should be too hard to find.

In a normal year this species begins to flower in late May and will continue until late autumn, but with this spring being so nice I have already seen some flowers emerging, so it is definitely worth a look.

In mid-May onwards, the flowers are usually pink but occasionally can be very deep pink or white. It is also one of the few rose species where you can have the flowers and the hips (the red seed cases) at the same time on the plant. The hips are large, almost like tomatoes, but in May we would be interested in the flowers.

The petals of this wonderfully scented plant are edible; they are often use to infuse a lovely rose scent and you can make things like rose cordial, rose honey, by infusing the petals in honey, or my personal favourite; a delicate rose petal tea to enjoy for a quiet moment (recipe below).

Historically the flowers have been used to treat spleen and blood problems as well as to aid digestion and increases appetite.

 

Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria)

This member of the umbellifer family (which family contains some wonderfully edible species and also some deadly poisonous ones) is not truly native to our shores. It was brought here by the Romans as a food plant and has since spread. It is perhaps one of the commonest questions I get asked; ‘how do I get rid of ground elder out of the garden’. It can be quite invasive if it gets a hold and my simple answer is…eat it.

It is another great spring leafy green that you could harvest plenty of and hardly make a dint in areas where it occurs. It is often found in gardens so you won't have to look far for it.

When the leaves first emerge you can eat them as a salad leaf, but as they mature they need a bit of heat through them to soften, again use like you would spinach and you replace any recipe for spinach with ground elder.

Ground elder is not related to the Elder (Sambucus nigra), it just so happens the leaves are similar.  The leaves are slightly serrated and the base of the stem is usually a purple/pink colour. Consult a good field guide to make sure it is ground elder as it is does have very poisonous relatives, although ground elder hugs the ground, the flowering spike will come up to around your knee (although that depends how tall you are!) whereas other members of this family can be a few metres tall.

It has a nice mild taste but with a hint of celery and lemon, I often chew and eat the stems on walks, much like eating celery stick. So whilst some gardeners tear their hair out trying to get rid of it from their gardens, if you find it add it to your cooking and enjoy.

Please note in short articles like this it is tricky to go in to lots of detail about how to identify plants and to go through all of their look-a-likes sp use this blog post as a guide and refer to good books and reliable website for more tips on how to identify them. Remember, do not eat anything if YOU are not 100% sure YOU know what it is.

Rose Petal Tea

You can use fresh or dried rose petal for this.

Makes 1 large mug

Place around 50g of rose petal in a small pan and cover with water just boiled from the kettle. Add a few drops of lemon juice which well help the flavour of the petals infuse, leave for around 10mins. Then strain the liquid through a sieve, pour some into your favourite mug, add a dash of honey and enjoy.